Can You Sue an Airline for Emotional Distress?

Mishaps on airlines can result in severe emotional distress for passengers, even when they don’t suffer physical injuries. When passengers fear for their lives due to some type of airline mishap, they can sue an airline for emotional distress to receive compensation.

What Is Emotional Distress?

Emotional distress, also referred to as mental anguish, is a psychological injury rather than a physical injury. Unlike physical injuries, emotional distress does not cause physical pain, but the symptoms and consequences of emotional stress can be just as devastating and last for years, or even a lifetime.

The clinical definition of emotional distress is the feeling of psychological strain and uneasiness produced by situations of danger, threat, and loss of personal security, or by internal conflicts, frustrations, loss of self-esteem, and grief. While acute stress can resolve quickly, chronic emotional distress can take years to resolve and sabotage your health and your happiness. When a person feels threatened or fears for his or her life, there are a variety of symptoms that develop. 

Common symptoms of emotional distress include:

  • Anxiety or depression
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Memory loss
  • Nightmares or insomnia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

In some people, emotional distress can cause tremors, violent shaking, tachycardia, severe mood swings, and intrusive thoughts or visual images of the event. Beyond a link to migraines, ulcers, diabetes, and heart disease, emotional distress also affects the muscles in your neck, shoulders, and spine. Emotional distress plays a significant role in problems with your limbic system, meninges (the three membranes that line your skull and vertebral canal), and spinal cord. 

Can You Sue an Airline for Emotional Distress?

When you suffer emotional distress caused by an incident that occurs on an airplane, you can sue an airline for emotional distress. However, emotional distress cases are tricky because there are no visible injuries.

If you file a personal injury lawsuit against an airline, you need Chicago aviation accident attorneys who can provide documented evidence in court to prove your case. Cases that involve psychological injuries usually require testimony from expert witnesses like psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists who can prove a diagnosis of emotional distress. This expert testimony is also used by the court to evaluate the patient’s level of psychological damage and establish a range of monetary damages associated with the patient’s injury.

In cases where expert witness testimony establishes a diagnosis of severe emotional distress symptoms like chronic anxiety or depression, severe mood swings, physical tremors or shaking, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the court may award significant compensation to the injury victim. This is especially true when emotional distress is linked to physical health conditions like heart problems, diabetes, ulcers, and spinal cord problems.

What Is the Zone of Danger?

In most jurisdictions, courts that handle emotional distress cases require the injury victim to be within something referred to as the zone of danger. In legal terms, the zone of danger is the area where a person feels a real sense of danger due to an impending accident, a physical threat, or an act of violence. This means that your emotional distress was caused by the fear of danger, physical injury, or loss of life.

For airline passengers, severe emotional distress is often caused by extreme turbulence, loss of altitude, malfunctions with landing gear, emergency landings, and crashes. However, they may also be caused by violent passengers on the plane who exhibit threats of violence or injury to other passengers or the crew. These issues usually fall within the zone of danger, making it much easier to sue an airline for emotional distress or sue a third party, such as another passenger on the plane.

Filing a Lawsuit for Emotional Distress

Under the law, there are two main types of emotional distress claims you can file. One for negligent infliction or one for intentional infliction.

An airplane is considered a common carrier, like a bus or train. So an airline has a duty to ensure that its passengers reach their destination safely. While the specifics of this duty may vary from state to state, generally an airline must act reasonably to prevent harm to its passengers. This reasonable care standard may be weighed against industry standards to see if a particular airline, or its employees, acted properly.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

This type of claim is filed when the defendant’s actions are unintentional or accidental, however, there must still be a proven link between the defendant’s actions and the plaintiff’s physical and/or emotional injuries. This may happen when the airline is forced into an emergency landing due to a bad storm.

Intention Infliction of Emotional Distress

This type of claim is filed when the defendant’s actions are intentional or reckless. This may happen when an unruly passenger makes threats of harm or physically attacks you, or when you are escorted off the plane in handcuffs for an invalid reason.

If you suffer emotional distress from an incident on an airplane, it’s best to talk to an attorney who can explain when and how to sue an airline for emotional distress.

Compensation for Emotional Distress Claims

Personal injury attorneys often represent people with cases involving incidents that occur on airlines, as well as incidents that occur with vehicle accidents, defective products, premises liability, workers’ compensation, and medical malpractice.

Since most airlines have a contract with each passenger, their liability may be limited in a personal injury lawsuit. Usually, the terms of airline contracts are printed on passenger tickets, but you should contact an attorney to see if you can get around liability clauses and sue an airline for emotional distress. Compensation for emotional distress can vary significantly based on the cause of your emotional distress, the testimony of expert witnesses, and your medical prognosis.

Chicago personal injury and workers’ compensation attorney Howard Ankin has a passion for justice and a relentless commitment to defending injured victims throughout the Chicagoland area. With decades of experience achieving justice on behalf of the people of Chicago, Howard has earned a reputation as a proven leader in and out of the courtroom. Respected by peers and clients alike, Howard’s multifaceted approach to the law and empathetic nature have secured him a spot as an influential figure in the Illinois legal system.

Years of Experience: More than 30 years
Illinois Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: Illinois State Bar Association, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, U.S. District Court, Central District of Illinois
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